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Around the States

3,400 Ballots Missing in Florida Election: Recount Flips Race PDF  | Print |  Email
By Kim Zetter   
September 04, 2008
This article appeared in Wired.com's Threat Level Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

Palm Beach County, Florida, is in the news again for another election mishap. This time the culprit isn't the county's infamous butterfly ballot that made headlines in the 2000 presidential race. Instead, the problem is ballots used with the county's new $5.5 million optical-scan machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems.
More than 3,000 optical-scan ballots have mysteriously disappeared since the county held an election last Tuesday.

According to tallies a week ago, a total of 102,523 ballots were cast in the election. But according to a recount of one of the races, which was completed this last Sunday, the total number of cast ballots was only 99,045 -- a difference of 3,478. Election officials say they can't explain the discrepancy, though critics are concerned that this is a precursor to problems that could arise in the November presidential election.

The problem was discovered only because the county was conducting a recount of a close judicial race between an incumbent, 15th Circuit Judge Richard Wennet, and his challenger William Abramson. Prior to the recount, Abramson had won the election by 17 votes; but the recount flipped the race and resulted in him losing the election to Wennet by 60 votes. The total number of votes cast in that specific race dropped by 2,900 between the time ballots were counted last Tuesday and the recount.

Palm Beach County Election Supervisor Arthur Anderson said the discrepancy in the number of votes cast in the judicial race was likely due to the extra sensitivity of optical-scan machines used in the recount, which are different from optical-scan machines that counted the ballots on Election Day. The seven high-speed tabulating machines used in the recount are much more "unforgiving" than those that processed the votes on election day, he told the Palm Beach Post.

Although none of the articles about this issue explain what Anderson meant by this, presumably the machines used to count the votes on Election Day were precinct-based scanners, which are used on site at polling locations, while the recount was done on central-count scanners, which are used to count ballots at a county headquarters.

If optical-scan machines are calibrated poorly or inconsistently, they will sometimes read some votes on ballots while ignoring others. This could explain the issue if the problem were simply that some votes cast in the race were read by machines on Tuesday and not read by different machines during the recount. But this can't explain why the total number of ballots cast in the election changed by more than 3,000.

Nonetheless, the county plans to certify the recount results this week, despite the discrepancy in the ballot numbers. County officials say it isn't their place to question the results, although they say they are trying to determine what happened to those missing ballots.

Abramson, the losing candidate in the judicial race, told reporters that he is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit.
This isn't the first time the Sequoia machines and Anderson have been criticized over uncounted votes. About 700 votes went uncounted in a special commissioners election in West Palm Beach last June. In that election, Sequoia optical-scan machines had failed to count votes on memory cartridges from three precincts. Sequoia maintained that the problem was Anderson's staff and not its machines. The staff had mistakenly fed the three cartridges into the tabulating equipment twice, causing the machine to "suspend" the votes and not include them in the tally. Election staff caught the problem days after the election, but before the official election results had been certified.

Arthur Anderson has only been the county election supervisor a short time but has been beset by criticism for most of it. He became election supervisor in 2005 when he replaced Theresa LePore, who created the infamous "butterfly ballot," and who is apparently writing a book about the 2000 election.

Anderson was elected election supervisor even though he apparently had no prior experience in election administration.

Ironically, he lost his own bid for re-election in last Tuesday's race, although he will still oversee this November's election, since his replacement will not assume office until January. A runoff race in November will decide the winner of his job, since neither of the two candidates vying for his position obtained enough votes last week to forestall a runoff. Like Anderson, neither of the two candidates hoping to replace him has experience running elections.
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